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The Dangers of Car Air Fresheners: What These Companies Don’t Want You To Know

Car air fresheners have been around for quite some time. The most popular being the disposable Little Trees air freshener (you know, those tiny trees you always see hanging from people’s rear-view mirrors). 

While many of us drive around with these multi-scented Little Trees and other similar devices that pump out fragrance into our cars, do we ever actually think about what those smells could be doing to our body?

As more and more people become more aware of the products that trigger their headaches, dizziness and other negative symptoms, I think it’s time we also pay attention to products we might not even consider – like Little Tree air fresheners. 

The Dangers of Car Air Fresheners

Just like with any synthetic scent, car air fresheners pose a health risk. In fact, synthetic scents are so bad, that they’re even being called the new second-hand smoke (1). This isn’t surprising, either, given about 95% of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil). This includes chemicals like carcinogenic benzene derivatives, aldehydes, toluene, and other toxic chemicals linked to birth defects, allergic reactions and central nervous system disorders (2).

While it is obvious that car air fresheners like Little Tree and others use fragrance, trying to get the manufacturer to own up to their ingredients and label them on their products proves to be more difficult. 

A consumer relations specialist at Car-Freshener Corporation in Watertown, New York, (the official manufacturer of scented tree products for cars) stated in an article that “I can’t tell you what’s in them because it’s proprietary information….I can tell you that they’re perfectly safe.” I’d have to disagree.

Many companies exploit this right in not having to disclose the chemicals used to create a certain scent. This is all thanks to the FDA, which doesn’t require it. In general, about 3,000 ingredients could be picked from to create a product’s scent. The “Transparency List” put out by the International Fragrance Association shows just how many fragrance chemicals one might be exposed to in a single car ride. 

And these air fresheners aren’t exactly tested for safety. According to watchdog Environmental Defense Canada, Health Canada and Environment Canada do not test automotive air fresheners for safety (3). They say that while Environment Canada has proposed regulations to put Canada in line with California standards, individual products still won’t be tested. 

While it is hard to know what exact chemicals are used in certain car air fresheners like the Little Tree and those that clip onto air vents, we can deduce based on the number of toxic ingredients found in other scented products and air fresheners. 

One of the worst offenders, of course, is fragrance. 

What is “Fragrance”?

Fragrance is the main thing to look out for with car air fresheners. While it is often labelled as only one ingredient, “fragrance” is actually made up of much more than just one compound. In fact, some fragrances can be the culmination of 1, 2, or even hundreds of different chemicals (4). 

When fragrance is listed as an ingredient, there is also a 75% chance that there are legally hidden phthalates within that fragrance, which isn’t a good thing (5). 

Not only are phthalates a problem, but as mentioned above, aldehydes, toluenes, and other petroleum-derived chemicals that synthesize a fragrance are also worrisome. 

Phthalates, Aldehydes, Toluenes and More…

Phthalates are a group of chemicals often used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl (like PVC). They’re also used in cosmetics to help fragrances last longer, and help lotions penetrate the skin (yikes). 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a study called, “Cleaning the Air: Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners” in which they found 86% of air fresheners tested positive for dangerous phthalates. They go on to note that “Most phthalates are well known to interfere with production of the male hormone testosterone, and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities.” 

Phthalates are also linked to diabetes (6), obesity (7), and autoimmune disorders (8). 

Aldehydes are also troublesome as they are linked to breathing problems when exposed in larger concentrations (like spraying yourself with perfume or spraying the can of air freshener). 

Toluene is linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, and irritation (9). Toluene is a neurotoxin, and is mainly sourced from petroleum crude oil. It causes lung, liver, kidney, heart, and central nervous system damage, and can cause headaches, loss of muscle control, brain damage, problems with speech, hearing and vision, brain fog, memory loss, and even death. 

The list of problematic ingredients that can be found in artificial fragrance is endless. How they effect the body is a little more systematic and easier to understand. So let’s take a look at the main systems in the body that are affected by these toxic concoctions. 

Car Air Fresheners: What They Do To The Body

As I’ve outlined above, car air fresheners and the fragrances that come with them cause all sorts of havoc on the body. To make it a little more clear-cut, I wanted to outline different systems in the body that are affected by the chemicals used to create fragrance. Let’s start with the immune system.

1. Immune and Lymphatic System

Artificial fragrance wreaks havoc on the immune system. It’s like chemical warfare on the body, and our entire immune system shuts down. It’s no wonder fragrance is a trigger for cancer. 

In July of 2014, a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that styrene (a chemical used in fragrance production) can cause cancer (10). The committee found “compelling evidence” for the conclusion, and said that some studies would support “a strong argument [for] listing…styrene as a known human carcinogen” (italics in original). 

Another study found how two chemicals used in fragrance production (isoeugenol and cinnamal) induced cell proliferation in the mandibular lymph nodes. These nodes also happened to be the most prominent reacting draining lymph nodes after inhalation exposure (11), suggesting that the chemicals used are obvious irritants to our bodies. 

2. Reproductive System

Hormone-disrupting phthalates can also pose a risk for hormone-related cancers like breast cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. Phthalates and synthetic musks confuse our hormonal system, throwing things off-whack. For example, phthalate exposure is linked to early puberty in girls, and is a risk factor for later-life breast cancer (12). 

In adult men, phthalates are linked to reduced sperm motility and concentration, increased damage to sperm DNA, and hormonal changes (13). They are also linked to thyroid irregularities in both men and women (14). 

3. Liver and Kidneys

Our liver and kidneys filter out toxic substances from the body, so they get hit hard when exposed to high levels of chemicals from fragrance. When we’re exposed to them every day, it becomes a chronic issue that our detox organs simply cannot keep up with. As a result, the liver and kidneys aren’t able to filter as well, which results in more physical symptoms like rashes, dermatitis, acne, eczema and more. 

For example, a popular fragrance chemical, toluene, attacks the central nervous system, blood, liver, kidneys, eyes, and skin, and it also serves as an asthma trigger (15). 

4. Nervous System

The nervous system is also hit hard by chemicals used in fragrance production. As the chemicals enter your body via the upper airway, they eventually make their way to the limbic section of the brain. This is where they start to affect your nervous system.

According to Rose Marie William, author of the Townsend Letter for Dotors and Patients (2004), when fragrances reach the brain, they start to cause all sorts of neurological changes. It can immediately affect your mood, pulse and blood pressure. Some people may also start to feel stressed or anxious (16). 

Research by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics links the chemicals in perfume to short term memory loss, central nervous system disorders, and even severe depression. This is concerning, given so many different products contain fragrance that is intended to last for weeks or even months. 

For me, being around fragrance gives me migraines, headaches, anxiety and makes it more difficult to breathe. Which brings me to my next point – the respiratory system. 

5. Respiratory System

Being a scent, it is obvious that fragrance has an effect on our respiratory system to some degree. Studies have even confirmed the negative effects synthetic fragrances have on respiratory health. One study showed a decline in exhalation volume by 58 percent when exposed to synthetic cologne (17). 

Another study, conducted by Anne Steinemann, PhD, asked nearly 1,100 people to complete questionnaires about their exposure to fragranced products (like air fresheners, cleaning solutions, personal care products and the like), and any reactions those products might have triggered (18). Over one third of the study participants reported experiencing one or more health issues from the scented products. 

The most common reaction? Respiratory difficulties, including coughing and shortness of breath. Over 17% of participants reported this effect. Another fourteen percent reported mucosal symptoms (like congestion and watery eyes). Other reactions reported included asthma attacks at 7.6%. 

Natural Alternatives to Car Air Fresheners

Thankfully, you don’t need to abandon all scent from your car if that’s what you’re into. Natural alternatives to conventional car air fresheners include products like the Purple Frog, which infuses a cardboard-like medium with essential oils like lemongrass, lavender, orange and peppermint. 

There is also the PURGGO car air freshener that is fragrance and scent-free. It is made from 100% bamboo charcoal and lasts for 365+ days (and works 24/7). This air freshener absorbs and eliminates odor instead of just masking it, which is a win-win for just about any smelly situation. 

If you’re looking for something different, you might be interested in a car essential oil diffuser. My Choice Natural Car Air Freshener is a diffuser that comes with all-natural essential oils instead of VOCs. While the oils come in little packs, and are more wasteful than the above options, it might be a good choice for those who really like a strong (all-natural) scent. 

Personally, I have a hard time being around any kind of fragrance, so I avoid it at all costs. I smell it in the air when neighboring households are doing their laundry, and I smell it in the clothing of individuals I walk by, or encounter on a day-to-day basis (like the fragrance that lingers on clothes from dryer sheets). 

I encourage all of you to avoid fragrance in products like car air fresheners, dryer sheets, personal care products, laundry detergents, dish soaps and more. Make it a resolution of yours to avoid these products. Who knows – maybe a health issue will disappear! It’s worth a shot. Either way, you’ll be protecting yourself, your family, and those around you from the dangers that synthetic fragrance poses on the body. 

dangers of car air fresheners

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